KABUL, Afghanistan - In his final address to Afghanistan's parliament Saturday, President Hamid Karzai told the United States that its soldiers can leave at the end of the year because his military, which already protects 93 percent of the country, was ready to take over entirely.
He reiterated his stance that he would not sign a pact with the United States that would provide for a residual force of U.S. troops to remain behind after the final withdrawal, unless peace could first be established.
The Afghan president has come under heavy pressure to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement, with a council of notables that he himself convened recommending that he sign the pact. The force would train and mentor Afghan troops, and some U.S. Special Forces would also be left behind to hunt down al-Qaeda.
All 10 candidates seeking the presidency in April 5 elections have said they would sign the security agreement. But Karzai himself does not appear to want his legacy to include a commitment to a longer foreign troop presence in his country.
Karzai was brought to power after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion and subsequently won two presidential elections - in 2004 and again in 2009. But he has in recent years espoused a combative nationalism, with his hour-long speech Saturday no exception.
"I want to say to all those foreign countries who maybe out of habit or because they want to interfere, that they should not interfere," he said.
Karzai said the war in Afghanistan was "imposed" on his nation, presumably by the 2001 invasion, and told the United States it could bring peace to Afghanistan if it went after terrorist sanctuaries and countries that supported terrorism, a reference to Pakistan.
Pakistan has a complicated relationship with the Taliban. It backed the group before its 2001 overthrow, and although now it is at war with its own militants, Afghan insurgents sometimes find refuge on its territory.
Karzai told the parliament, which was holding its opening session for this term, that security forces were strong enough to defend Afghanistan without the help of international troops.
Karzai steps down after next month's presidential elections. Under Afghanistan's constitution, he is banned from seeking a third term.
Meanwhile, the Taliban released two Afghan army personnel, captured during last month's deadly raids on two military checkpoints, the Ministry of Defense said in a statement Saturday.
The men were freed after elders in the region interceded on their behalf and the military agreed to hand over to the Taliban the bodies of their comrades left behind on the battlefield.
The attacks on Feb. 23 left 21 Afghan army personnel dead as well as several Taliban fighters.